Active Ingredients: Deeply affecting portrait of time and growing up; Warm spirit
Side Effects: Spotty acting; Occasional talky and over-written dialogue
Boyhood is a difficult film to write about, emerging as it does from the constructive interference of two very different sensations. On the one hand is the grand experiment of its construction, by now well-known: director Richard Linklater filmed the fictional narrative of a 6-year-old boy growing into a young man over a dozen years with the same set of actors. It’s a simple formal idea, but the many thoughts it provokes about how we experience time, both in our own lives and through the technology of cinema, are illuminating, profound and significant. And yet, lofty statements such as these don’t do justice to the spirit of the film itself, to its warmth, compassion and approachability. I suppose, then, that Boyhood is a very rare film indeed, and not merely because of its structural ambition or thematic richness. Instead, Boyhood is as moving and powerful as it is because it achieves this richness through simplicity and humility, and with a wisdom, sincerity and depth of feeling it graciously extends to the audience.
Boyhood is as much about the character of Mason Jr. as it is about actor Ellar Coltrane, another example of the film’s constructive interference. As we watch Mason grow from a wistful and sensitive six-year-old into the thoughtful and independent young man he becomes, we also see the maturation of Coltrane as a person and as a soulful presence onscreen. The beauty of Boyhood is in foregrounding the magic of this transformation that we all experience growing up, poignantly condensing the process into the film’s duration. Time becomes legible in Coltrane’s face and the faces of the people that surround him. Experiences shape Mason’s personality, and over the course of the film we feel the impact of time in a powerful and uniquely cinematic way.
Just as the form of Boyhood allows the audience to witness Mason’s growth over the years, its content focuses on the forces that contribute to growth and change. As a little boy, Mason lives in Houston, Texas with his boisterous sister (played by the director’s own daughter, Lorelei Linklater) and his weary and beleaguered single mother (a dynamic performance by Patricia Arquette). His father (brought to life with wit and tenderness by Ethan Hawke) is an infrequent presence in his life, but an important one; Mason seems to look up to his independence and artistic sensibilities, but he’s too young to pick up on his immaturity and lack of responsibility.
The early years of Mason’s boyhood, as they are with most kids, are defined by his domestic space. He, and by extension the audience, obliquely experiences his mother’s struggles and frustrations as she shuttles him to and from school and moves the family to another town so she can pursue a graduate degree and a better job. In these early scenes, Linklater focuses on what Mason absorbs from his domestic life, the disappointment he senses in his mother and the frustration he sees in the men in her life. As Mason enters adolescence, however, his world begins to extend outside the home and he is molded by a new set of forces: his friends, his social life at school, girls, mischief, all the experiences that make up the everyday joys and pains of growing up.
It’s in Mason’s teenage years, which make up the final movements of the film, that we come to understand how Mason is shaped by these influences and begin to feel the cumulative effect the years have had on him. He’s frequently offered advice from role models around him—his father, his step-grandfather, his employer at a restaurant, a teacher who pushes him to be more disciplined in pursuing his talent for photography—but more than anything, Mason is discovering for himself how he fits into the world around, how to assimilate all he has experienced into the person he wants to become. He grows into a deeply thoughtful young man, an artist, someone with a true and kind heart. We leave the film, then, not only touched by Mason’s experiences, but filled with the melancholy and nostalgic joy of a proud parent at the person he has become.
It’s a rare privilege and a deeply moving experience to watch this twelve-year transformation take place, within both Mason and Ellar Coltrane, over the two hours and forty minutes of the film. Indeed, its emotional impact comes precisely from the combination of these two sensations of time. By condensing the full scope of boyhood within a single film while still maintaining a feeling of continuity, Linklater creates new resonances within time. We can see the bright eyes of the little boy behind the smile of the young man; we can feel his history as he looks to the future. This sensation is uniquely cinematic: for what is cinema if not a technology that captures and manipulates time, twisting it into new shapes we couldn’t see on our own?
Key to the success of how Boyhood operates across time is the fluidity and elegance of its construction. There are no title cards to signal the passing of time, nor overly-tidy juxtapositions that elide a year across a cut. Instead, time is marked simply through the evolution of the actors and the observations Linklater makes about the world they inhabit. There are references to the political climate and snatches of popular music to help identify the changing times, but one of the film’s most interesting temporal markers is its fascination with technology. Linklater was incredibly prescient in understanding, way back in 2002, that the role of technology in our lives was dramatically evolving, and his decision to weave computers and phones into the narrative was a canny one. Video games and iPods are given loving close-ups, shots charged with an altogether different meaning in 2014 than they would have had when Linklater made them several years ago.
Another way Boyhood achieves the fluidity of lived experience is by avoiding the obvious signposts and inflated melodrama we retroactively (and falsely) add to life stories. So, for example, we don’t see Mason’s first kiss or watch some outsized, external tragedy befall him. Linklater understands that the simple, small-scale dramas and subtle emotional contours of everyday life are infinitely more deserving of celebrating through film. Taken together, these directorial choices (which may be familiar to fans of Linklater’s Before series) help articulate what I think is Boyhood’s most poignant insight: reflecting back, we think about our lives as a collection of individual moments, a road map to the present, but we can only experience life as the single, continuous, headlong journey through time that it is.